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How to use references in your writing

David Camacho Science Tips & Tricks Writing

What is a citation?

A citation is a note included in the body of a piece of writing that acknowledges where the author(s) found their information and gives credit where credit is due. Citations are an easy (yet widely misused) tool that can lend tremendous strength and credibility to your writing.

As a writer, knowing how to properly cite sources is not only important for your academic integrity, it also shows respect for the original author and all the effort that went into publishing their work.

As a reader, citations are important because they provide you with the information needed to independently evaluate an author's claims and the relevance/strength of the material that was used.

How to cite a reference

When citing sources, always avoid using direct quotes unless they are absolutely necessary.

Instead, try your best to summarize or paraphrase what the author is saying in your own words. Good paraphrasing shows that you have been diligent in your research and fully grasp the reference material.

Pro tip: A quick & easy way to put your own spin on a reference is to take notes while you read, then use those notes to summarize the important points in your work.

When to cite a reference 

Knowing when to cite a source can be tricky, but there are a few general guidelines you can follow. 

Always use citations when:

  • Presenting words, ideas, results, or interpretations that have influenced your writing
  • Quoting, summarizing, or paraphrasing the work of someone else

Don't use citations when:

  • The information is widely known by your audience, or can not be attributed to one source (common knowledge)
  • The opinion or insight is your own

When in doubt:

  • include a citation!

How to find a good reference

In your search for references, be sure to consider the type of sources you use and their quality, accuracy, and relevance.


Primary sources make ideal references because they give an original testimony of a topic.

Secondary sources provide loads of information from multiple primary sources, but should be carefully investigated for opinion and bias before citing.

Tertiary sources are a compilation of primary and/or secondary sources that are useful for gathering general information, but are typically not appropriate to cite in a research paper. 


In general, aim to use scholarly publications that have been cited by other professionals, use appropriate methods, and are closely related to what you are writing. Never cite highly-opinionated sources, such as blogs, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Library databases and PubMed are both great ways to find high impact and peer-reviewed sources.

What is a reference list?

For all sources you mention in-text, a full reference must be listed at the end of your work. Your reference list may be labeled as References, Works Cited, or Bibliography depending on the citation style you use.

Reference lists should always follow the same style that was used for in-text citations.

Without a reference list, you are plagiarizing and withholding important information from your readers.

What citation style should you use?

There are many citation styles out there, but the most common are: American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago, and Vancouver

  • APA— commonly used in Psychology, Education, and Science. Reference list is written in alphabetical order.
    • In-text citation: (Last name of the first author, Publication Year)
    • References: Last name, First initial. Middle initial. (Date) Title of work. [Format.] Retrieved by http://URL.
    • APA Style Guide
  • MLA— commonly used in the Humanities. Works cited is written in alphabetical order.
    • In-text citation: (Last name of first author, Page number)
    • Works Cited: Last name, First name. Title of work. Title of website. Version or edition. Publisher. Day month year of publication. Publication medium. Day month year of access. <optional URL>.
    • MLA Style Guide
  • Chicago— commonly used in Business and History. Bibliography is written in alphabetical order.
    • In-text citation: (Last name of first author, Publication year)
    • Bibliography: Last name, First name Middle initial. Title of work. Format. City: Publishing Company, Copyright date. Sponsoring source, Collection. Publication medium, http://URL (Month Day Year of access). 
    • Chicago Style Guide
  • Vancouver— commonly used in Medicine and Science. References are listed numerically, in the same order they appear in the text.
    • In-text citation: numerical subscript matching the source's position in the Reference list
    • References: Last name, First and Middle initial. Title. Journal title abbreviated. Year Month, Day of publication. Volume(edition): page(s). Publication medium. Month Year of access. <opt. URL>.
    • Vancouver Style Guide

Keep in mind that the citation format for each style depends on the type of resource used (book, journal article, newspaper, etc.). You can explore the attached style guides (linked above) to learn how to cite different materials, multiple authors, and more.


In summary, giving credit to others for their creative and intellectual work is always in style. You'll rarely be judged for citing too many references. Having a hearty reference list shows that you invested time and intellectual energy in researching the topic. Used correctly, references have the power to enhance and highlight the true originality of your work.



Featured image: Annotated ASME Code and Standard book by Russ Ward

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  • DYanna Hess-Miller on

    Fantastic blog on using references. In my position as a DBA I’ve had to write up technical documentation and have to include references. I’m definitely going to use these suggestions.

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